Photo by Ted Soqui
FRIDAY NIGHT A HANDFUL OF EXPECTANT strangers gather in cars at a cracked and narrow parking lot in Hollywood. We're here to see Los Angeles' “first guerrilla drive-in,” according to the Web site (www.12.org) that led us here, and at 10 minutes past 8 we're still waiting. In the chilly night air, we exchange the nervous glances of the taken.
“Maybe it's a hoax,” George Gomez says to his friend David Aguilar. That wouldn't be such a bad thing for Gomez and Aguilar, who are filmmakers. “We're thinking about doing our own guerrilla drive-in at the end of August,” Gomez says. “We thought we'd be the first ones to do it. Of course, we still could be first because there's nothing going on here.”
As if on cue, a car pulls into the lot and the driver starts unloading electronics. “Sorry I'm late,” Caleb Schultz tells us. “Traffic was really bad.”
Everything it takes to stage a guerrilla drive-in fits neatly into the back of Schultz's Honda Civic: a VCR, a video projector, an FM receiver and a generator. The only other things you need are a film and a wall.
Tonight, we're watching 12, an experimental feature by writer-director Lawrence Bridges, projected on the painted brick wall of a food bank just south of a Staples store on Sunset Boulevard. Bridges isn't here tonight — and it turns out that this is not the first screening of 12, which follows the plight of two prodigal demigods forced by their father, a wrathful Zeus, to live in Los Angeles as characters from The Importance of Being Earnest. The director began projecting a two-hour cut of his three-hour movie onto the sides of buildings from Santa Monica to the Valley last summer. Sometimes he gets the owner's permission; sometimes he doesn't, a dicey prospect given tonight's locale: behind the parking lot of the LAPD's Hollywood station.
Schultz is an intern at Bridges' commercial-production company, and acts as Bridges' projectionist and publicist. After he fires up the generator and sets the projector on top of the Civic, he distributes press kits to nine people divided among five cars. “This is a good turnout,” he says. “Sometimes no one shows up.”
By 8:30, with everyone snug in their cars — radios tuned to the Spanish-language dance station KACD 103.1 FM, to pick up the localized pirate signal that will carry 12's soundtrack — everything is set.
For a fleeting moment, as the film's first frames flicker over an adjacent alley, this tiny quadrant of the city feels freed from the rationality of the grid. Gradually, with footage of the L.A. riots and the Northridge earthquake incorporated into its narrative, the film and its environment begin to sync up in fascinating ways.
“It's almost like a Cristo gesture,” Bridges says a few days later over the phone, “to make connections between illusion and reality and then put that back on the walls of the city that inspired it, dressing the city with its own fiction.”
We're a long way from Hershel Gordon Lewis and Joe Bob Briggs here. Bridges' quixotic project doesn't tell a story so much as it gets at the nature of telling stories on film through an epic amalgam of Greek mythology, Oscar Wilde, recent Los Angeles history, and the influences of Herzog, Wenders, Scorsese, Godard and other movie gods. As Bridges describes his film's disjunctive form: “I still haven't gotten over Weekend yet.”
Certainly, Bridges' guerrilla venue — at once brazenly out in the open and totally clandestine — doesn't help. Like a real drive-in movie screening, distractions come easily. There are no make-out sessions to spy on, but sometimes it's more fun to watch the passing Friday-night fun-seekers and homeless men on Cole Street as they try to figure out what's happening onscreen.
Bridges doesn't mind. He thinks there's value in melding drive-in culture with underground movies. “I hope my film finds an audience, but I also wanted to create a unique experience,” he says. “I hope more people get into this. Then people can just drive around, stop and sample art.”
As for filmmakers Gomez and Aguilar, they drive off an hour into 12. No doubt on the way to getting their own drive-in started.
Social Studies: The Seven-Year-Old Itch
THERE WAS AN OUTBREAK OF HEAD lice recently at my daughter's private school. I'm not talking a few kindergartners with a suspect itch, but swarms of kids, including every girl in the fifth grade. Parents were phoned in the morning and told they needed to pick up their children pronto. Fleets of SUVs screeched into the parking lot, and alarmed mothers hauled pie-eyed kids straight to Rite Aid for packages of Rid or Nix. The following day, kids were re-checked, and most were sent home again — this, despite the hue and cry of parents stubbornly insisting that the kids did not have nits, but dandruff.
I got a look at this dandruff; it had legs, and it laid eggs. I could be sanguine about all this because my daughter was not affected (this time: I've deloused and de-wormed my kid twice in her short life, thank you very much), and because I could, like the neighborly housewives of TV commercials commiserating about unsightly wax buildup, tell these parents where salvation lay.
“They're very resilient little creatures,” says Maria Adaimy, owner of Hair Fairies, as she gently parts the hair of an 11-year-old girl named Alex, and squishes a microscopic, flesh-colored bug between her nails. In an airy salon just east of the Beverly Center, with a mess of preschool puzzles and furniture that appears to have been jumped on by 1,000 toddlers, the Hair Fairies staff does nothing but nitpick, at the rate of 50 families a week. The place has been getting a lot of attention since it opened in November because, as Adaimy tells it, “The little bug is big business.”
“I have families come in who've been living with lice for years. They're in denial,” says Adaimy. “You part their hair and it's riddled with thousands of bugs. Parents just aren't vigilant, and they're embarrassed to report it to the schools.”
“And it's always the private schools,” says a mother from West Hills. “Just like cockroaches; they live in the fanciest buildings.”
“Are you writing about me?” asks Alex, out of Adaimy's grasp and looking over my shoulder. “I want to be famous.”
“You want to be famous as the girl who has lice?” asks Alex's mother, an exhausted woman who holds a limp, flush-faced baby suffering from stomach flu, while trying to cajole her 6-year-old daughter to sit still long enough so she can be re-checked.
“It's worse than anything; we all have it. Again,” says the mother. “The last time, I cleaned everything, I bought new mattresses; I almost set fire to the house.”
“The bug is not viable off the scalp,” says Adaimy. “You don't need to clean your linens. Keeping hair dirty is also a myth; nits don't jump or fly. But they do build up immunity to the chemicals in stuff like Rid. So, the only way to get them is to check and check and check.”
“This place is a godsend,” says the West Hills mother. “Last time we had it, all the nannies in the neighborhood did the nitpicking. They're from South America and stuff, and they just seem to be better at seeing the bugs.”
“I really want to be famous, like in a few months,” says Alex, as her sister falls face first into Adaimy's lap and whines, “I DON'T ä LIKE LICE!”
“Well, nobody does,” says her mother, watching Adaimy harvest a few more eggs. “How bad is it?”
“Not bad at all,” says Adaimy.
“Not that I don't love you,” says the mother, “but if I never see you again, I won't be sad.”
“Maybe you could say that I had lice, but not as bad as my sister,” says Alex, as her sister howls, “I GOT THEM FROM YOU!”
“Just keep using the shampoo I gave you,” Adaimy tells the girls' mother. “It's nontoxic, and really a lot more effective than the medicated stuff you can buy.”
“Yeah,” says the mother, taking a seat before Adaimy as her daughters run keening through the room. “The only medication you need for nits is Xanax.”
Daily Bread: The Poet Inside the Ad Man
THE POET REX WILDER HOLDS UP A bread roll over lunch at the Cat & the Fiddle in Hollywood. “If this doesn't get eaten,” he says, “I feel sorry for it.”
Wilder, whose poems have been published in the Times Literary Supplement and other august journals, is illustrating a point about the artist's ability to lose himself in other things. That his statement is “sensitive” and “poetic” almost to the point of parody is something of which he's well aware, and he delivers the line with an ironic smile. Wilder doesn't live in an ivory tower. As well as being a poet, he is an ad man who is vice president of creative development at Pallotta TeamWorks. He has written Super Bowl commercials for R.C. Cola and McDonald's. He works long hours and spends half his life on the freeway, shuttling between home and office, listening to books on tape.
“I never felt I should inflict the starving-artist syndrome on my family.”
What all this means is that there's another way of looking at that bread roll. There is the Way of the Poet, and the Way of the Copywriter. “Someone is in love with this roll,” Wilder says, holding it up again, this time as a kind of demonstration model. “As an advertiser, your job is to fall in love with it too. Not prostrating yourself, just making something memorable out of it, like 'Please don't squeeze the Charmin.'”
Or, for that matter, like “Humankind. Be Both” (a line Wilder came up with for an Avon breast-cancer walk); “Brace Yourself for Melvin” (a promotional tag line for the Jack Nicholson film As Good as It Gets); “Five Hundred Yards From the Vietnam War” (another promo tag line, for the TV series China Beach); and “It's Your Getty” (for the Getty Museum's reopening four years ago). Given that he's a poet, you'd expect Wilder to be good at coming up with stuff like this, and he is. Nor does he mind doing it, even when the pressure's on. “Advertising is living by your wits,” he explains. “I'm not nervous when I only have an hour to come up with something. There's an element of fun when the stakes aren't high. But poetry's a different matter. In poetry the stakes are life and death.”
To be a poet whose most famous lines are in commercials might seem a melancholy fate, but that would be the wrong way to look at it. Advertising is instantaneous; poetry happens in slow motion. To become famous for one's poetry often takes even great poets the better part of a lifetime, and some die before it happens. Wilder is in no hurry. At age 45 (“The phrase 'young poet' is an oxymoron,” Philip Larkin pointed out some time ago) he has yet to publish his first book. Having seen the first volumes of too many contemporaries die on the shelves, he wants to do it right.
“Could a really massive ad campaign on the scale of Calvin Klein make contemporary poetry popular?” I ask.
“I would have to say no,” Wilder replies. “Advertising doesn't 'make' anything. It informs, positions, brands. You can lead a horse to Wordsworth, but you can't make him think. Poetry is too intensely personal to be as sought-after as a new CD or movie. It's dense, rich. With real poetry, the experience of it is almost religious, an ecstasy. Reading 10 or 12 great poems in a row could kill a person. And if they're not great poems, why read them?”
Wilder does believe that an advertising campaign on behalf of a contemporary poet might conceivably be a success, given the right personality and a few quotable lines. Not that any such personality is readily apparent. (“It would have to be the Second Coming, or at least the second cummings,” he quips.) Still, reading one of Wilder's frothier poems (“In and Outback: An Australian Love Poem”), I thought I saw the makings of an ad for an Australian airline. If accompanied by an appropriately sexy pictorial, of course:
On my back, on her bed.
A lorikeet tipping into guava nectar
By the window was an altar
Beneath which she said
Nothing for hours with her mouth.
Never been this far south.
The outback, the in her.Her breasts were my breaths
Made tangible; when I held
Them, I passed out: little deaths.
Earth to Publicists
May we suggest reading the press clips about the movie you're promoting before you send them off to film editors? Case in point is the following excerpt from a review, written by Ronnie Scheib for Daily Variety, that was photocopied and sent to the Weekly, just in advance of the movie-in-question's opening.
Result is fairly good-looking [film] shot down by a hackneyed script, atrocious acting and a total lack of redeeming social value. Despite quasi-naked women shimmying up and down poles or getting it on in hot tubs, theatrical outlook appears dim. Still, _______ may secure a solid video following among diehard hip-hop fans and those who like their action uncluttered by characterization or logic.